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RRRP 2020 to 2024 Update

In the first months of 2020, SY Acadia donated a week of vessel time to STRI to visit their remote station in the Coiba National Park, just over one year later we are a partnership and program has formed to study, document and assess the Coral Resilience across the TEP. This program will be span over 2020 to 2024 and thrive to incorporate remote areas spanning from Mexico to Peru and out to the Galapagos.

Dr Davey Kline, staff scientist of STRI and his team set out to determine whether or not some coral of the TEP are more resistant to climate change than other areas of coral in the world, and if they are why?

The Rohr Reef Resilience Program rapidly came to life through the following months of 2020, the program is a direct partnership funded by the Acadia founders. The program team via the contacts of STRI has expanded, including a chemistry-climate study team out of the Max Planck Institute in Germany & also a leading photo imagery team out of the University of Haifa of Israel. A key parameter of the program as it expands out of Panamanian water is the scientists, institutes and individuals would we thrive to partner and collaborate with to make the program's multi-destination fieldwork possible. We look to partner and work with local teams who can be a part of the study and keep the sampling and ongoing monitoring active through the years without the need to multi-trip per year travel from the RRRP team.

The large spatial variations in environmental conditions experienced by corals across the TEP make it an ideal natural laboratory to understand the importance of changing environmental conditions for reef health and resiliency. The Tropical Eastern Pacific (TEP) marine corridor is a region of rich and unique biodiversity that spans the continental shore from Baja California in the North to Peru in the South, and includes two island archipelagos on the continental shelf of Panama (Las Perlas and Coiba Archipelago) and five isolated offshore islands and archipelagos (from South to North): the Galapagos Islands (Ecuador), Malpelo and Gorgona Islands (Colombia), Cocos Islands (Costa Rica), Clipperton atoll (France) and the Revillagigedos Islands (Mexico).

Shallow habitats on the continental shelf and offshore islands are spectacularly diverse and productive, due to varying levels of upwelling that drive a range of important ecological processes including marine megafauna and seabird migration, fish feeding and breeding patterns; coral spawning, coral calcification and growth. Offshore islands such as Malpelo, Cocos and Clipperton are inhabited by a unique fauna including many endemic species of fish and invertebrates.

As anthropogenic activities are predicted to add further pressure to coral reef ecosystems worldwide, corals of the TEP are receiving increasing attention because they may hold the key for coral reef conservation and restoration efforts. TEP corals have evolved attributes to become resilient to extreme environmental conditions, including those predicted by climate change scenarios, but these mechanisms remain poorly understood. We predict that these resilience mechanisms include: • THE CORAL MICROBIOME The many microorganisms, including endosymbiotic algae, bacteria, archaea, viruses and fungi that live in symbiosis with corals, may play a prominent role in conveying resilience to corals challenged by environmental stressors because they are able to evolve and adapt much faster than their host. • CORAL HOST ADAPTATION Corals that survive mass bleaching events, disease or other die-offs may have genes that make them more resilient. • REMOTE REEFS WITH HEALTHY GRAZING COMMUNITIES High levels of grazing may give corals a competitive advantage over algae, leading to healthier and more resilient reefs • CORAL REPRODUCTION & GROWTH Compared to corals in the Caribbean and elsewhere, TEP corals may reproduce dis- proportionately asexually and grow very rapidly, making them more able to recover quickly from major disturbances.

This research program will address three key questions:

Are corals that are able to tolerate abrupt environmental changes in upwelling areas of the TEP more resilient to global change? Hypothesis: Corals that have acclimatized and adapted to locally challenging conditions have higher bleaching resilience and recover faster. Their ability to recover from bleaching is the product of surviving previous mass bleaching events. The response of corals to stressors is partly defined by environmental conditions experienced during the lifetime, and those from previous genera- tions.

What are the possible roles that microorganisms play in the resilience of super-corals? Hypothesis: Because they have short generation times and high mutation rates, new genetic variants of microbes are constantly created, some of which may be better suited to the local environment and their host. As a result, mi- crobes can provide a large and rapidly adaptable source of ecological novelty and potential resilience mechanisms for the host organisms that sidesteps the host’s own more limited evolutionary potential. We hypothesize that corals are more resilient when they host a higher diversity of bacteria with a broader rep- ertoire of functions that are beneficial for hosts under stress, such as produc- tion of antibiotics and other molecules that can exclude pathogens.

Are remote reefs with large grazing communities more resilient? Hypothesis: We expect that remote reefs with less overfishing and more abun- dant grazing fish and invertebrate populations will have less macroalgae and be more resilient to mass mortality events. Previous research has shown that high levels of macroalgae can increase the prevalence of coral disease and mortality especially after a bleaching event.

The scientists will put new tools to work as they revolutionize ocean science research. David Kline has developed a collaboration with Conservify, a non-profit with funding from Google and others to develop low-cost sensor arrays called FieldKits that have been deployed in rainforests across the Amazon, and will be modified for marine applications for this project. For this project, they will develop custom marine sensor arrays to measure pH, temperature and light next to the corals throughout the 4-year program. The project will also use advances from Silicon Valley including Structure from Motion and Machine Learning to create high resolution 3D photographic reef models. “Conservation tech is really changing the way we study reefs,” says Kline. “We can use 3D scanners developed for autonomous cars, and machine learning to identify the organisms in millions of photos.”

And although the team will have amazing visuals, they won’t have to see all of the organisms present to identify them. Matthieu Leray plans to use genetic techniques to do what forensic experts have been doing at crime scenes. Based on DNA collected from water samples, he will be able to tell if a whale, a barracuda or a shrimp has been in the area. In a recent study of this eDNA (environmental DNA) in the Caribbean, Leray and his team identified DNA from 9000 different organisms near STRI’s Bocas del Toro field station, many more than they could identify via visual surveys of the same area.

Animals, plants and microbes associated with corals may be protecting reefs by producing chemicals that keep predators away or slimy coatings or by eating the predators before they can eat the reef. “The corals may be 500 years old, and may evolve fairly slowly, but the bacteria on a reef may be evolving much more quickly—and may protect the reef from changing conditions,” Leray said.

Sean Connolly will create sophisticated mathematical models that help to understand how the reef is changing at different sites, and Mark Torchin will apply his expertise of invasive marine organisms.

Communicating to a broader audience about the discovery of these super-corals and conservation will include the team’s underwater photography, watercolor and graphic art from one of the fellows, and film clips. All of the team are expert divers and several are underwater photographers. One student is a graphic artist.

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